Watsons target bigger calves

29 Jan, 2014 01:00 AM
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Irwin farmer Mark Watson.
We just wanted to muck around with a new breed to test out the idea of hybrid vigour
Irwin farmer Mark Watson.

MORNING tea time at the Watson family's picturesque Irwin farm can get very busy.

It's because neighbouring farmers regularly drop in for a cuppa and a chat.

It's a social atmosphere but the topic never strays too far from farming talk, especially cattle, as the Watson's run 300 mostly Angus breeders, with a few Shorthorns and Murray Greys in the mix.

What Mark Watson enjoys talking about is how well a Charolais bull performs over Angus breeders and the excellent calves produced by the combination.

Mark and his father Lynton first came across Charolais when they were looking for a different sire breed, aiming to inject hybrid vigour into their cattle herd on their 5500 hectare Mondarra property, 30 kilometres east of Dongara.

"We just wanted to muck around with a new breed to test out the idea of hybrid vigour," Mark said.

"I saw a nicely-muscled Charolais bull and thought it would work very well over the Angus females.

"We didn't think too much about it at the time, but we sat up and took notice when we started getting calves that were at least 10 per cent bigger.

"It's something we tried as an experiment and thankfully it worked, because our calves are noticeably heavier."

Producing a first-cross calf was part of the Watson's first tentative steps towards establishing their own breeding herd.

It has been an interesting learning curve for the Watsons, whose cattle operation previously consisted of buying pastoral cattle from the Pilbara and east of Wiluna, to feed then sell off at certain weight specifications.

The flow of quality cattle from the Pilbara started to dwindle a few years ago, so Mark shifted his focus to building his own breeding stock.

He decided to use predominantly Angus breeders which he had found to be well suited to a number of different marketing avenues, but the addition of using Charolais bulls has given them an extra advantage.

Mark found that buyers from all sectors were impressed with the well-built and powerful calves, with a number of market options available to the early-maturing "silver calves".

To keep the two breeds evolving, Mark has four Charolais bulls and four Angus bulls to breed replacement females.

Many of their females were quite large, so they have taken a different approach to joining, mating them at about 350kg rather than a specific date.

"We have big cows so we are trying to keep their weights down by joining earlier," Mark said.

"Usually it's around April or May and we've found that works best for us.

"That way we can also calve at the break of the season when there's usually plenty of feed around.

"We don't work the farm overly hard and have a reliable supply of water."

Mondarra means place of running water, so with the Irwin River running through the property and four natural aquifers, nothing has ever run dry in the 100 years the generations of Watsons have been there, while feed can be found almost every month of the year.

Since taking on their own herd they have started to crop about 500ha of perennial grasses, so during the summer period any cows or calves requiring a boost, will be sent into the perennial paddock.

Mark also keeps a bit of hay on hand as a back-up, in addition to providing lick blocks over summer to ensure the cattle are getting their nutritional requirements.

They keep 30 to 40 replacement females a year and once they have built their numbers up toward the ideal level of 400 breeders, they will start to heavily cull to refine the breeding traits.

To assist him in selecting cattle traits that would provide optimum results, Mark attended workshops to purchase the right kind of bulls for his operation, looking for the right muscling, birthweights and milk traits.

By using all-rounder Charolais bulls, the Watsons have been able to produce first cross-calves that are quick to reach target weights and fill out in all the right places.

In the past Mark has catered towards the bull calf market, turning them straight off their mothers and onto the boats at about 200kg.

But the bull calf market has been slightly volatile in recent times, so he started searching for other avenues such as feedlots.

If the calves are headed to the feedlot, Mark will get them to between 200kg and 240kg and wean them in September, selling most of them before the summer period began.

The flexibility of markets available for calves with Charolais and Angus breeding is one of the reasons the Watsons will continue using the excellent combination.

"Both breeds have made a good name for themselves and done the hard yards with their marketing," Mark said.

"We just put in the effort from our end, by getting that Charolais-Angus calf up and going, then the finished product generally speaks for itself."

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